“You know what? Don’t explain it any more—challenge accepted.”
With last week’s hilariously inconclusive metatextual handling of the whole “is Dennis still part of the Gang or not” issue out of the way, the second episode of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia’s 13th season gets back to basics. In fact, “The Gang Escapes” doubles down on that idea, locking Dennis, Dee, Mac, Frank, and Charlie together in perhaps the closest narrative representation of a bottle episode since that time they got taken hostage, as Dee signs them all up for a team-building escape room exercise.
Before we get stuffed into Mac and Dennis’ time-locked and Sherlock Holmes set-dressed apartment with them, though, let’s take stock of the show’s world. Dennis is back, as he said last episode, “for now.” Same goes for Glenn Howerton who, after worryingly being shunted to the post-episode credits in deference to his season premiere surprise return, is right back in alongside his castmates in the opening cast list. Plus, this is a standout episode for Dennis/Howerton, as the Gang’s pressure cooker shenanigans lean heavily on some prime Dennis Reynolds lunatic energy and one genuinely disturbing further reveal about the depths of said lunacy. Everyone connected with the show’s being cagy about just what form Dennis/Glenn’s role this season will ultimately take. But, since Amanda, the poor escape room employee (Kate Comer), has to repeatedly correct Dennis’ creepy assumptions that there’s a sexual component to the game, that seems to put to rest speculation that this Dennis is merely the Gang’s desperate collective hallucination. So, for now at least, it’s business as usual.
Naturally “usual” in the Gang’s case means an evening of property destruction, dim-bulb Machiavellianism, serious bodily harm, and the skittering of the group’s collective and individual madness, weakness, and abyssal awfulness around the edges of the story. Since the escape room company specializes in in-home puzzles (apparently a thing), the damage is largely confined to the props strewn about Dennis and Mac’s place, which the guys all predictably destroy once things get frustrating. Oh, and to Dee, who suffers untold injuries (including at least a broken arm) in her attempt to circumvent the guys’ exclusionary problem-solving tactics. (Even though she knows exactly how to solve the game since she went through it alone already and only proposed the group activity to show the guys up.) The only other damage done is to our psyches, as Dee, having been locked in Dennis’ unnervingly sound-proofed bedroom by the guys, accidentally triggers what Dennis later refers to as the “carefully curated and well-researched bondage facility” into which he lures Craigslist hookups whose profiles exhibit a shaky grasp of self-preservation and safeword use. Implications abound.
So far, so good, as the guys—only agreeing to take part once some free-associating conflates the game’s “stakes” with the 20-ounce sirloins Frank agrees to provide as prizes—not only imprison Dee once she presumes to take a leadership position, but also split into warring factions. (Charlie with Frank, and Mac worshipfully following Dennis.) Putting the Gang into a high-pressure scenario and then cranking up the juice is a reliable strategy for It’s Always Sunny, and episode writer/co-executive producer Megan Ganz clearly has a handle on what makes every member tick like the unstable rage-bombs they are. Mac, new bruiser’s body notwithstanding, is still desperately in search of someone to serve, and his ever more complicated feelings about Dennis emerge in signature, almost-heartbreaking vulnerability. Dennis and Frank compete for “alpha male” status, Charlie’s calming satchel of Big League Chew and some contradictory animal metaphors their latest battleground. Charlie, meanwhile, remains the wildest of cards, his allegiance to Frank here hinging on a mix of filial/comradely solicitousness and hairtrigger whim.
If there’s a problem with this setup, it’s not its abruptness (I’m all for just tossing the Gang into the deep end of an episode and watching them attempt to drown each other) as much as it’s schematization. Ganz’s script seeks to score comedic points from its deconstruction of the guys’ toxic, self-defeating masculine defensiveness and fear. Nothing wrong with that, as the show has long seen the Gang’s mercurial enthusiasms and prejudices used as target practice. But Sunny’s outrageousness is a deceptively delicate thing, and having the characters’ positions hew too obviously to the satirical points at hand take us out of the narrative.
Here, it’s undeniably hilarious how the guys’ inability to lower their macho shields (learned in part, we find out, from their understanding of the teachings of Donald Trump) prevents them from accomplishing the simplest first task in the game. With one team in possession of a lock and the other the corresponding key, Ganz makes macho mincemeat of the guys’ posturing unwillingness to work together for the common good. Instead, they immediately squabble about whose take-charge idea should be heard first, until they have tortuously developed a meticulously self-congratulatory system of bureaucracy in order to determine just who will get to turn the key in the goddamned lock already.
Meanwhile Dee, finding herself alone (but for Amanda, incredulously observing things via walkie-talkie and secret cameras) in what she discovers to her horror is her brother’s supervillain sex dungeon, decides to take things into her own hands. This, too, is where Ganz plays around with gender stereotype, as Dee’s imprisonment is a result of the guys’ too on-the-nose social commentary about not wanting to follow a female leader. “It feels, like, un-American, maybe,” opines Charlie, while Dennis underlines the point by adding, “The thing is, we had a vote in America...” If the Gang is America’s worst impulses made flesh, their symbolic status in a story needs to be a little more subtle, and the guys’ deconstruction of American male mule-headedness and misogyny is more effective the further it gets away from these all-caps broadsides. The fact that the guys possess everything they need to solve their problem but—instead of turning the key in the goddamned lock—have to buttress their male egos with a summit’s-worth of arch, face-saving verbiage first is delightfully smart. And funny, as the guys’ diction and manners (pipes, scotch, and self-important table-tapping for all) turn their strategy session into a ludicrously non-musical production of Hamilton. (Call it “The Escape Room Where It Happened.” Thank you.)
But the guys aren’t the only ones to exclude Dee, as Ganz shunts the Gang’s one female member off on her own for a far too truncated solo adventure. Sure, we get the gloriously ghoulish gift of another peek into the mind of Dennis Reynolds. “The fact that his prisoner cannot escape is really what’s getting him off,” explains Dee, brushing off the freaked out but helpful Amanda’s advice to solve Dennis’ dungeon. Before heading out the window instead (“Clever girl,” mutters Dennis appreciatively when he sees his sister on the ledge), Dee lobs a few satirical softballs of her own, urging Amanda to approach their dilemma “like women,” which she defines as “through cooperation we can find a way to emasculate the men whose attention we’re seeking.” Here again, we get it, even if Dee’s internalization of gender roles feels more integrated into her eternally abused and self-loathing self.
Then there’s the ending, where the guys rush to Dee’s hospital room—and praise her with shocking sincerity. Heart on Sunny is, if anything, harder to pull off than satire, and while it’s genuinely affecting how obviously touched Dee is at being given the coveted first bite of Frank steak for her sacrifice in solving the escape room, there isn’t enough bitter with the sweet. Sure, the Gang’s rapprochement comes through a reassertion of their unified awfulness—they mock “nerd” Amanda for letting them out of the room in time (thus beating it on a technicality) just because Dee was about to plunge off a building. And there’s a crushing sort of sense to the idea that these fractious and dismissive men can only respect a woman for going through a ludicrously dangerous ordeal because of their own stubborn, needless stupidity. But, in the end, “The Gang Escapes” never quite manages to integrate the Gang’s warring impulses.
- George Romero always said that his zombie films were really about humanity’s inability to set aside our prejudices in the face of disaster. Which, in this episode, had me wondering whether the Gang’s cockroach-like survival instincts could overcome their squabbling if It’s Always Sunny crossed over to The Walking Dead. My money’s on Charlie somehow becoming king of the world.
- Howerton asserting Dennis’ dominance with an imperious “Don’t sit down!” to the servile Mac is some exemplary Dennis Reynolds madness.
- Dennis’ pre-taped dungeon greeting includes a fingerprint e-signature consent form and the admonition, “Remember, if you’re having too much fun it ruins it for me.” “This is insanely disturbing,” notes Amanda. She’s not wrong.
- Charlie, assessing Mac’s negotiating position: “His neck is high. It makes me trust him. Good posture, bro.”
- And Charlie, smacking the satirical premise right in the kisser: “I’d like to take a moment to recognize our excellent work as men. Navigating these waters with ethics, with grace, and with minimal violence. But above all without compromise to our masculine identity by any admission of guilt, failure, or weakness.
- The “minimal violence” sees the thwarted Dennis rage-scratching Mac’s face.